Non-Traditional

THON 2018

This week, I had the opportunity to travel back to State College for my daughter’s 21st birthday celebration on Thursday night. It was a low-key night with dinner at one of her favorites, The Field, highlighted by table fries and finished with one of their trademark Creamery Milkshakes. Not your typical 21st birthday party for a kid away at college, but one that fits her perfectly.

Another main attraction of this trip was Penn State’s 45th annual THON event – a 46-hour dance marathon. The weekend event serves as the culmination of a year-long effort of fundraising to support Four Diamonds. Why 46 hours you might ask? Well, it’s because a recent study determined that every school day, 46 children are diagnosed with cancer.

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While it’s the same event that took place when I visited the campus during the late 80s, it’s on a totally different scale today!

From its humble beginning in 1973, when 78 dancers raised just over $2,000 dollars to this weekend’s 707 dancers with contributions over $10,000,000, THON has united and energized the Penn State Student community every winter for the past forty-five years. Sure, there are detractors, but I would implore them to just listen in during Family Hour and they’ll understand the impact the world’s largest student-run philanthropic organization has on the families they “adopt”.

Four Diamonds supports families whose children are diagnosed with all sorts of pediatric cancers – with conditions you’ve likely never heard before. In fact, families adopted by Four Diamond will never see a bill for treatment.  The money raised covers everything for these families that is not covered by insurance.

The event that is THON is no easy undertaking. It takes over 16,000 volunteers and countless sponsors to pull off the experience. And even though they moved from the small White Building to the much larger Bryce Jordan Center, access to the event is still cherished.

Greek orgs and special interest groups line up in the freezing cold as early as 12pm to secure their locations inside the arena even though doors don’t open until 4pm.  In all, over 350 organizations, along with individual dancers, participate in the event. Changes over the years have tried to streamline entry while ensuring the safety of the students, but it’s still madness.

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We stood in our 2:35pm pen across the street in the Medlar Field parking lot and waited our turn to make our way over to the BJC. Thankfully, the thousands of others around us protected us from the freezing temps, including this dedicated supporter – sporting the Four Diamonds logo.

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By 5:30pm, we were inside and already in awe of the colorful scene.  At 6pm, the 707 official Dancers stand, along with everyone else in the arena. It’s an unwritten rule that if you’re inside the arena, you can not sit down.

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A tradition of THON includes the Line Dance. It serves a dual purpose. First, it’s a creative recap of the previous year’s events – covering significant PSU and pop culture topics. And second, it helps the dancers to stretch and exercise throughout the night. The Line Dance is performed roughly every hour, but they mix it up so they don’t tip their hand to the dancers to let them know the time. This year’s lyrics included nods to the Eagles and Pens while slamming the Browns, a shoutout to Tom Petty and the Rockefeller Christmas tree which came from the area.

Throughout the event, several bands and acts perform including local and nationally-known artists. Joe Jonas surprised everyone last year with a cameo appearance, but rumors of Taylor Swift crashing this year’s party never materialized. The headliner to open the show was MisterWives, an alt-indie pop band that got the crowd rocking early.

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One of the absolute best aspects of THON is seeing all of the THON families. The THON Kids, as they’re known, participate in events throughout the weekend and spend plenty of time with their adopted orgs – whether it’s on the floor or in the stands. Seeing these little kids interact with their student mentors is truly something special.

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With our daughter starting her shift on the Rules and Regs Committee at 11pm, we left the arena behind. As we made our way back to our car, we commented that we had been on our feet nonstop for over 8 hours, but that pales in comparison to what those inside the arena are facing.

We were headed back to our cozy bed while thousands of others were just over 10% through their quest for 46.

Thankfully, the Entertainment Committee keeps the dancers occupied by incorporating several activities throughout the hours.  There are games such as the newly introduced Red Car vs Blue Car race and Family Feud to keep the spectators amused. On stage, there are performances that include student entertainers along with the children’s talent and fashion shows. One of the most highly anticipated events is the Pep Rally, where Penn State sports teams compete in a dance-off, where the Men’s Gymnastics Team went back to back with their win this year.

The next morning, we grabbed a hot breakfast at the Waffle Shop and hit the road for Pittsburgh. After a 3-hour drive and 5-hour flight, we were back in our bed in Arizona, now catching the live stream via the web. Thinking yet again, how these kids have persevered.

We set our alarm for 3:30am our time to wake up and catch our daughter’s Tapestry Dance Company performing on stage at 5:30am in State College.  This, after many of them have stayed there for almost 36 hours, including three who are official dancers! Insane. It’s also around this time that the arena reaches capacity and is closed to additional attendees.

After going back to sleep and waking up at a “normal” time, we watched again as the “final four” as they call it approached. During this time, they introduce all of the families that have made the trip to State College and have a few families speak of their journeys. This is when you realize just how much this event means to so many families.

After another somber Celebration of Life video honoring those whose time has passed, a local favorite, Go Go Gadget ignites the crowd for the final countdown and numbers reveal.

This year, over $10M was raised again. A staggering number driven by college students with reach throughout Pennsylvania and around the world.

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On top of that, the life skills that these 16,000+ volunteers are developing will carry them far in their lives. This is truly a world-class event run by “college kids”.

So, if you’re ever approached and asked to support THON, please consider it. And if you’re ever within driving distance of State College in February, make the trip! THON is open to all throughout the weekend – just make sure you get there by 4am if you want to experience the heart-tugging sessions that are including the Final Four.

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3 comments

  1. Awesome recap Bill. I knew THON was big and awesome but I have a better appreciation for how huge it is, what a great thing for the PSU students to do every year. Way to go Jessica!

    1. It is something every Penn State fan should experience – even if for a few hours. I’m sorry I didn’t at least experience it back in the 80s to witness the transformation for myself.

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